Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
From Idaho to Ireland, cyclists are linking arms to protest inadequate cycling infrastructure.
New York City’s signature green-painted bike lanes have spread nearly as fast as Duane Reades and Chase Banks, it seems. But many new lanes are unprotected by physical barriers, which help make safe rides for drivers and cyclists alike.
So on a Tuesday morning in late August, local bike lovers used their bodies to protest—and protect—a particularly exposed stretch.
Along midtown Manhattan’s busy Second Avenue, volunteers from the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives linked elbows to form a chain of “human bollards,” to borrow the title of a short Streetfilms documentary that captured the moment. Grateful cyclists on their way to work high-fived the volunteer human shields, who have been pressing the city to keep its word on properly securing the high-traffic right-of-way.
“These cyclists are so happy to see friendly faces in the morning, and also to have that bumper from moving traffic,” Macartney Morris, an organizer with Transportation Alternatives, tells Clarence Eckerson, Streetfilms director.
When the New York City DOT painted a new lane on 18-block strip of Manhattan’s Second Avenue last year, it was a huge improvement on the spotty sharrows that were there before. But it was a promise only partly fulfilled: The city decided against installing the "tuff curbs”—upright barriers to physically prevent vehicle intrusion—that it had initially proposed. Now, the exposed lane is perennially blocked by trucks and parked cars.
“It’s just a permeable space,” says Chelsea Yamada*, a fellow organizer. “Anyone can go in and out at any time. Whether they’re making a delivery and stalling for more than an hour, or just temporarily unloading, it can send cyclists right into harm’s way.”
Derek Magee, another volunteer with Transportation Alternatives, explains that the demonstration was to demand the city give the protection they promised. Even better than tuff curbs, he says, would be to fully protect the lane by designating parking spaces alongside it.
Why did the city back down on protecting cyclists? Last month, Manhattan Community Coordinator Colleen Chattergoon told Streetsblog in an email response that the agency decided against using the tuff curbs “due to safety and accessibility concerns raised during additional design review and product testing”—but that doesn’t explain why there weren’t alternatives installed, instead. (I’ve reached out to NYC DOT for an explanation and will update once I hear back.)
Outside New York, similar chain-linked demonstrations have popped up in cities around the world; in the past two months, cyclists have joined arms along bike lanes in San Francisco, Mexico City, Boise, and Dublin. In Boston, Jonathan Fertig, a local cyclist and frequent interventionist on unprotected lanes, is working on one for his city, where physical separations are particularly scant. “Boston has yet to install a single planter in a protected bike lane,” he recently tweeted. “They're everywhere in NYC.” Guess the streets are always greener, too.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated Ms. Yamada’s name.